OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has agreed to meet with aboriginal leaders on Jan. 11.
The meeting comes after weeks of protests by aboriginal grassroots people, and as two aboriginal leaders move into Day 25 of a hunger strike.
It is not clear yet whether Manitoba Cross Lake Elder Raymond Robinson or Attiwapiskat Chief Theresa Spence will end their hunger strikes, although both had pledged to continue until at least the meeting actually took place.
Spence has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11 and Robinson since Dec. 12. He travelled to Ottawa this week to sit in solidarity with her on an island in the Ottawa River near Parliament Hill. He told the Free Press Thursday he was putting his life on the line to protect his people’s land and its resources. He is unhappy about a measure in the government’s omnibus budget bill which makes it easier for band councils to designate land for lease to outsiders, believing it is a way for the government to try and co-opt reserve land easier to make way for oil and gas and other mineral development.
Spence has been demanding a meeting with Harper and Governor General David Johnston. She is the chief of a northern Ontario reserve which a year ago made headlines because housing conditions were so poor families were living in non-insulated shacks and tents as winter approached.
The Jan. 11 meeting is not within the 72 hour deadline imposed by Spence Thursday but is two weeks ahead of the Jan. 24 meeting date which was proposed earlier this week by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.
Atleo issued the invitations to Harper and Johnston on New Year’s Day for a meeting to coincide with the first anniversary of the 2012 Crown-First Nations Gathering. However Spence and Robinson immediately rejected the date saying their health was already in jeopardy and they couldn’t wait three more weeks.
Harper’s office issued the notice of the Jan. 11 meeting this morning.
"This working meeting will focus on two areas flowing from the Gathering: the treaty relationship and aboriginal rights, and economic development," Harper said in the release.
By agreeing to a meeting earlier than Jan. 24, Harper has shown an interest in trying to calm the growing anger among grassroots aboriginals and perhaps stem the momentum of the Idle No More protest movement. However by not agreeing to a meeting within the 72-hour deadline, he is also showing he will not simply cowtow to threats.
The Idle No More movement was started by four aboriginal women in October in response to the fall omnibus budget implementation bill, which amended things such as environmental regulations, fisheries act rules and the land designation process. It has grown now to include protests against more than half-a-dozen government and backbench bills addressing aboriginal issues, including forcing chiefs and council to make their salaries and band finances public, setting water quality standards and implementing a new election process. Although most are issues aboriginals want dealt with the protesters argue the bills were launched without adequate, if any, consultation, with First Nations which violates treaty rights and the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people.
Prime Minister Harper answered questions about the Idle No More movement and the upcoming meeting while at an announcement on the auto sector in Oakville, Ont.
He said the meeting will be a continuation of the themes begun last year at the Crown-First Nations Gathering.
"These are long term challenges but we are committed to addressing them," he said.
Harper was not directly asked what he thought about Spence and Robinson using a hunger strike as leverage but did say whether they attend the meeting is up to First Nations leadership to decide.
He also said Canada allows for peaceful protests but that no Canadians tolerate it when protesters break the law.
Robinson and Spence both said Friday they will not end their hunger strike until the see what comes from the meeting Jan. 11.
"I’m going to remain here on my hunger strike until I see meat and substance both at that meeting," said Robinson, at a press conference outside the teepee and tents where he and Spence are now living in the shadow of Parliament Hill.